By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Writer
The Pocono 400 at Pocono Raceway was relatively quiet for the 2017 Sunoco Rookie of the Year (ROTY) contenders in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Of the five official ROTY contenders, both BK Racing drivers, Corey LaJoie and Gray Gaulding, have no experience at the 2.5-mile ‘Tricky Triangle.’
Erik Jones started 15th in his No. 77 GameStop / Cars 3 – Driven to Win Toyota Camry. Jones’ Furniture Row Racing team elected to pit late in the stage, allowing Jones to lead 17 laps. At the end of Stage 1, he had climbed up to finish 13th, the highest of the rookies in Stage 1, but three spots away from additional Championship Points.
Jones took two tires between Stages 1 and 2, taking the lead. Nine laps into Stage 2, Kyle Busch passed him for the lead. Jones finished Stage 2 in sixth, gaining five additional Championship Points.
The third and final stage was quiet for Jones. He moved forward, but was not able to reach the lead, even with a caution with 20 laps to go. Jones did earn his best career finish, third, his first career top five finish.
Jones was happy to earn a finish he believed they deserved,
“Just happy, happy that we finally get a finish that we deserve. We ran top-five most of the day and had good strategy and it worked out. The last restart played out right into our hands and got it during the third (stage) and knew we had to hold those guys off and we’d be just fine. It’s exciting, happy we had a fast race car. Wish we had a little bit faster one and then we could have gone up there and raced for it, but definitely a good day for us.”
Daniel Suarez had the best starting spot of the ROTY contenders, starting 14th in his No. 19 ARRIS Toyota Camry. Stages 1 and 2 were quiet for Suarez as he finished the stages in 15th and 19th respectively.
An alternate strategy had Suarez as high as the Top 10 in the final stage. He ultimately finished the race in 15th.
Ty Dillon started 27th in his No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet SS. For the majority of the race, Dillon flew under the radar.
In Stage 2, Dillon pitted with under two laps to go, under caution. The penalty was the tail-end of the longest line.
Dillon ran inside the top 10 for much of the final stage.
With 17 laps to go, Dillon missed his pit stall under caution and had to back up, costing him track position. The mistake ultimately relegated him to an 18th place finish.
Dillon explained that even strategy couldn’t help with a huge track like Pocono,
“There was so much strategy in today’s race at Pocono. In the first stage, we worked to get our No. 13 GEICO Chevy dialed in. Once we got close to what we needed, we started playing with a strategy to make up track position in the final two stages. It’s so important at this track, but so hard to get once the field spreads out. It worked how we needed it to, and our car really started to come around there at the end. I took off on that last restart and picked off a couple other cars in the short amount of time that I had. Now I’ll focus on our plan for Michigan next weekend.”
Corey LaJoie returned to the No. 83 Dustless Blasting Toyota Camry, starting 35th on the 39-car grid. One lap after the restart in Stage 2, LaJoie pitted to get off-sequence with the rest of the field. The strategy backfired as LaJoie had to return to pit road.
Later in Stage 2, LaJoie pitted with under two laps to go, under caution. The penalty was the tail-end of the longest line. The gamble cost LaJoie the lap he regained via the wave-around.
LaJoie finished the race in 28th, three laps down.
Gray Gaulding started 33rd in his No. 23 Addiction Campuses Toyota Camry. Gaulding finished the race in 29th, four laps down.
Making their Debut:
Darrell Wallace, Jr. although not competing for ROTY honors, made his debut for Richard Petty Motorsports in the historic No. 43 Smithfield Ford Fusion, filling in for the injured Aric Almirola. He started 16th after turning heads in both practice and qualifying. Two speeding penalties on pit road in Stage 1 put Wallace one lap down behind the eight-ball.
Wallace never regained the lap, but fought hard all day long to try to be in the lucky dog position. Late in the race, he pushed Matt DiBenedetto’s No. 32 IncredibleBank.com Ford Fusion deep into turn one to move by. Wallace ultimately finished in 26th, one lap down.
After the race, Wallace congratulated race winner, Wood Brothers Racing Team’s Ryan Blaney, driving side-by-side with the historic No. 21 Motorcraft Ford Fusion.
Now, all the rookies will prepare for Michigan International Speedway, one of the fastest tracks on the circuit.